Achewood (The Best Comic on the Internet) just announced The Achewood Donation and Patronage Program, making Chris Onstad the latest webcartoonist to shift into a more explicit system of distributed patronage. The best other example I know of is Danielle Corsetto of Girls With Slingshots, who moved to full-time cartooning purely on the basis of a successful online donation drive. Onstad has, for some years now, been supporting the Achewood family purely through merchandise sales (the traditional model for full-time webcartooning is a combination of merchandise and advertising… do we call this the Khoo model?), but apparently he’s decided to take it to another level. Maybe money was getting tight. Considering that the internet is chock-full of people who would cut off their thumbs to keep Achewood in their lives — and I’m no exception — it sounds like a pretty good idea.
It’s also really interesting that this move takes place just as the news breaks about Dark Horse’s publication of an Achewood collection. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but there it is. Just coincidence, I guess.
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There’s been a lot of discussion about digital arts economics lately — primarily focused on the music business, since it’s the most visible example of an industry flailing around in search of a new business model. Everybody wants digital music, lots of people are ready to admit that artists need to be paid, and quite a few bright people are looking at serious strategies for making that happen.
- Seth Godin gives a rapid-fire “for God’s sake, try something new; here are some ideas” speech to a room full of record executives.
- Kevin Kelly presents a cogent summary of one very popular strategy: make almost everything available for free, which creates a few die-hard fans who will spend big money on exclusives, thereby subsidizing everything else.
As both of those articles insist, a key factor to this new model is creating a personal connection, so that fans are able to trust that their money is going to the right place. What’s happening is that the per-unit cost of a piece of art is being eliminated — not just becoming zero, it’s ceasing to even be a concept. Instead, fans are being asked to pay for the whole experience of receiving stuff from an artist. But in order for that to work, it needs to be a sustained, thriving experience rather than a cut-and-dry transaction. To draw upon a bit of anthropological theory, it’s the transition between a market economy (in which the item is a commodity, i.e. its value is completely irrespective of its source) and a gift economy (in which a large amount of the item’s value derives from the relationship in which the exchange takes place). Seth Goodin wants to give lots of money to his favorite musician, Ricky Lee Jones — he admits he’s already spent a fortune acquiring every recording she’s ever made — but he wants to hear from her in exchange. If you want a less touchy-feely example: I joined Netflix, and my estimation of the value of an individual DVD immediately plummeted. But I was (and am) extremely happy to pay Netflix a monthly fee for the ability to have the world of film at my fingertips, see all the movies I’d always wanted to see, discover great obscure works, interact with my friends’ movie tastes, and generally be a member of the Netflix community. If they were to launch a new feature where filmmakers contact me (respectfully and tastefully) based on my previous viewing habits and request funding for new projects using a portion of my Netflix subscriber fee, I’d be happy to do it.
An interesting question (and rather pertinent to my situation!): what happens to the middlemen? What new directions can, say, a publisher be exploring, so that they can continue to follow their mission of helping creators and fans reach each other, and continue to make a living? Considering that artists are often too busy creating to handle editing/production/marketing/distribution/programming/accounting, I don’t think there’s any chance of us becoming obsolete. Also, Top Shelf artists in particular tend to have a shared sensibility that fans respond to loyally (at the very least, they’re unified by the fact that Chris and Brett like them, so so there’s naturally a lot of crossover appeal). There will always be a need for ancillary staff to handle the things that artists aren’t good at or don’t have time for, and there will always be a need for trusted voices that help readers sift through the overwhelming amount of culture available to them. But I suspect that both of those roles will continue to change as the digital economy continues to grow.
We live in interesting times!